Millennials and the New Penology: Will Generational Change in the U.S. Facilitate the Triumph of Risk Rationality in Criminal Justice

  • Jonathan SimonEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Risk, Crime and Society book series (PSRCS)


Predictions by some in the early 1990s that United States criminal justice was dominated by a “new penology” of rational risk management (Feeley and Simon, Criminology 30.4: 449–474, 1992; The Futures of Criminology 173: 174, 1994) proved at best premature, as the nation adopted extreme penal policies and aggressive policing tactics with no particular basis in scientific evidence and rejected proposals to moderate penal severity by risk. Since the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, signs abound that the risk paradigm is gaining ground in the name of “criminal justice reform” (Kohlher et al. 2018). While reservations about risk remain significant, many of them express concern about racial justice consequences of risk management instruments that will carry over the criminalization patterns of recent decades into the future. This chapter argues that the delayed arrival of risk rationality reflects the initial stages of a slow but inexorable shift in generational political criminology as the influence of “Baby Boomers” (Boomers), born between 1946 and 1964, crests and that of “Millennials,” born between 1981 and 1996, rises (PEW, Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins, 2019). I offer a historical-cultural hypothesis for why Baby Boomers rejected rational risk logics when it came to crime and why Millennials are more open to it. Looking at “period effects” on generational imaginaries points to striking differences in the political landscape in which crime was experienced by these distinct cohorts as they entered young adulthood, a phase that sociologists have long viewed as having enduring influence across the life course (Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927). Specifically, I argue that Boomers and Millennials have been influenced by “signal crimes” (Innes, Signal Crimes: Social Reactions to Crime, Disorder and Control, Oxford University Press, 2014) that point in very different directions, with very different implications about both behavior and the meaning of crime for social organization. This is especially clear when we consider these highly publicized crimes against two contexts that have long been drivers of punitive turns in crime policy in America: Black communities and central cities. Boomer signal crimes, experienced against a background of racialized violence and urban crisis, made Boomers receptive to penal populism (Pratt, Penal Populism, Routledge, 2007). I offer the hypothesis that Millennial signal crimes, decoupled largely from Black communities and decentered from urban landscapes, have laid the groundwork for a generation more receptive to rational risk logics about crime. Baby Boomers came to think about crime through a broader “culture of fear” that led to an angry, hot, penal populism. Millennials are not immune to crime fear, but are much more exposed to sources of anxiety or dread like climate change and economic inequality, against which crime is perceived as one more problem to manage.


Generation Cohort effects Signal crimes Millennials Baby Boomers Penal populism 


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice LawUC BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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